This item has been updated since initial publication.
The Malaysian Bar is outraged and saddened by the discovery of a reported 139 grave sites found at up to 28 “death camps”1 in the state of Perlis, near the border with Thailand. These graves are widely believed to have contained human remains of victims of trafficking or smuggled migrants who died whilst in the custody of traffickers or smugglers.
Whilst the specific circumstances of their deaths remain unclear, we are disturbed by what has been reported, and which is borne out by graphic evidence, namely that these victims may have been detained in cages and tortured prior to their untimely deaths. If true, these are unspeakable acts of extreme cruelty and barbarism. The fact that these gruesome acts have occurred in our country is a leaf out of the macabre. This is undoubtedly a crime against humanity.
What is also deeply perplexing and numbing is that these “death camps” housing human traffickers or migrant smugglers and their victims had been established along the Malaysian side of the Malaysia–Thai border for allegedly several — some reports suggest up to five — years, ostensibly without any detection on the part of Malaysian law enforcement agencies. Indeed, there is a press report acknowledging that the General Operations Force had known about the existence of these “death camps” back in November 2014.2
The Malaysian Government cannot disclaim responsibility for this shocking and tragic state of affairs. It is inconceivable that an extremely sensitive area such as our international border with Thailand could have been left so unpatrolled and unmonitored, as to permit these “death camps” to have been set up and allowed to mushroom undetected, people to have been detained and kept in such appalling conditions, and for this massive loss of lives. Ignorance on the part of the authorities is galling, and raises serious questions of either complicity or incompetence, or both.
The Malaysian Bar readily concurs with the Prime Minister that the culprits responsible for these “death camps” and the inhumane treatment of these victims must be prosecuted and, if found guilty, punished to the full extent of the law. In 2007 Malaysia passed the Anti–Trafficking in Persons Act, which was extended to cover the smuggling of migrants in 2010. Notwithstanding this legislation, our law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have been found wanting in their effectiveness and functioning. This explains why Malaysia was demoted to Tier 3 in the United States’ State Department Trafficking in Persons Report in 2014.
Moreover, the circumstances in which our law enforcement agencies in charge of border protection were unable to detect the existence of these “death camps” have to be investigated. The Malaysian Bar calls on the Malaysian Government to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry (“RCI”) to investigate the existence of these “death camps”, and their perpetrators. In order to be credible, members of the RCI must include civil society representatives, especially those involved in working with the various categories of people movement into Malaysia. It is also critical that the Malaysian Government takes the findings and recommendations of this RCI seriously, and acts on them without delay.
The RCI must look into the way in which the different forms of people movement, commonly referred to as “mixed migration”, occurs in Malaysia. The RCI should investigate the flow of foreign migrant workers, undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and victims of trafficking into Malaysia, and address questions relating to appropriate laws for oversight of regular flows of migrants; interdiction of irregular flows; protection for refugees, asylum seekers and victims of trafficking; and prosecution of offenders. The question of our foreign labour needs and our over–dependence on cheap migrant labour must also be addressed. The RCI should also probe whether our law enforcement agencies have sufficient resources to do their work, and adequate training and sensitivity to know how to differentiate their responses to the diverse forms of migration. The unfolding tragedy is clearly the consequence of poor enforcement, and is proof of the failure to prevent the menace of human trafficking and migrant smuggling.
And last, but not least, the RCI should get to the bottom of the allegations of complicity, collusion and corruption of law enforcement agencies. In this regard, we note that the Minister of Home Affairs has reportedly said, “We suspect that some of them are in cahoots with the traffickers”,3 and we share his concerns. We commend the Malaysian Government for the arrests of 12 police officers* for alleged involvement in human trafficking, but this can only be the tip of a very large iceberg. However, a purely internal inquiry will be insufficient, hence the need for a comprehensive RCI. Further, as current mechanisms — such as the Enforcement Agencies Integrity Commission — have failed to provide sufficient oversight, new and more directly–focused systems must be implemented.
The Malaysian Government must take swift action to seek out and arrest the perpetrators of the “death camps”, whether they are the traffickers or smugglers themselves, or the colluders and others who are complicit in this extreme example of one person’s inhumanity towards another. Justice demands it.
28 May 2015
1 “Horrors unearthed at 28 sites used by human traffickers”, The Star Online, 26 May 2015.
2 “Camps found in January”, by Royce Tan, Oh Chin Eng, Yuen Meikeng, Tashny Sukumaran, Christine Cheah and Dina Murad, The Star Online.
3 “Zahid: Officers may be in cahoots with traffickers”, The Star Online, 27 May 2015.
* Editor's Note:
It was subsequently reported on 28 May 2015 that only two police officers (not twelve) had been arrested for alleged involvement in human trafficking. See "Two policemen nabbed over human trafficking", News Straits Times Online, 28 May 2015, and "Minister: Officials involved in human trafficking didn't know about deaths", Malay Mail Online, 28 May 2015.